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Overcrowding in Prisons – At What Cost?



Overcrowding in Prisons

It is 2013, and the United States still is number one in the world for the most prisons and prison population. Even China, with its Communist government and the largest population in the world is a distant number two. There are many reasons for our excessive correctional system. The draconian punishments implemented in the 1980s and 1990s  were a major factor in increasing our prison population. During that period, many states curtailed the power of their parole boards, a number of states adopted the “Three strikes, you’re out” provision, discretionary sentencing power of judges were reduced, and “Zero Tolerance” became a mantra. Unfortunately,many of these policies were applied to nonviolent crimes. At least one-half of the prison population is incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. It would be far less expensive to sentence nonviolent offenders to stringent community supervision, electronic monitoring,and mandatory drug programs than committing such offenders to long prison terms.

Let us compare the monies that states spend on their prisons to the monies that are allocated for education.

It was reported that, “About 91 percent of incarcerated adults are under state or local jurisdiction. Over the past two decades, state spending on corrections (adjusted for inflation) increased 127 percent; spending on higher education rose 21 percent. Five states — Vermont, Michigan, Oregon, Connecticut, and Delaware, — now spend as much as or more on corrections as on higher education. Locally, Maryland, is near the top, spending 74 cents on corrections for every dollar it spends on higher education. Virginia spends 60 cents on the dollar.”

Some argue that state prison populations are decreasing in the last four years. This proposition is a mirage. A substantial part of the reduction was due to the decrease in the huge state prison population for California. The decrease was caused by the Supreme Court mandate to California to reduce their state prison population. So, California now sends many minor offenders to local prisons instead of state prisons.

The following article in Catholic Online discusses the large increase in the federal prison population over the last 30 years.

By Catholic Online:

According to a new report by the Congressional Research Service, the federal prison population has jumped from 25,000 to 219,000 inmates in 30 years. This represents an increase of nearly 790 percent. Prisons, full to the brim with inmates paints a grim picture of the United States where 716 people are incarcerated out of every 100,000.

Three decades of ‘historically unprecedented’ build-up in the number of prisoners in the U.S. have led to a level of overcrowding that is now ‘taking a toll on the infrastructure’ of the federal prison system, according to the research wing of the U.S. Congress.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) – Three decades of “historically unprecedented” build-up in the number of prisoners in the U.S. have led to a level of overcrowding that is now “taking a toll on the infrastructure” of the federal prison system, according to the research wing of the U.S. Congress.

“This is one of the major human rights problems within the United States, as many of the people caught up in the criminal justice system are low income, racial and ethnic minorities, often forgotten by society,” Maria McFarland, deputy director for the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch says.

As a consequence of the imposition of very harsh sentencing policies, McFarland’s office has begun seeing juveniles along with the very elderly being put in prison. “Last year, some 95,000 juveniles under 18 years of age were put in prison, and that doesn’t count those in juvenile facilities,” she noted.

“And between 2007 and 2011, the population of those over 64 grew by 94 times the rate of the regular population. Prisons clearly aren’t equipped to take care of these aging people, and you have to question what threat they pose to society – and the justification for imprisoning them.”

A growing number of these prisoners are being put away for charges related to immigration violations and weapons possession. The largest number is for rather petty drug offences. This is an approach that one of the report’s authors, Nathan James warns is no longer useful in bringing down crime statistics.

“Research suggests that while incarceration did contribute to lower violent crime rates in the 1990s, there are declining marginal returns associated with ever increasing levels of incarceration,” James notes.

A reason behind these startling figures is people that have been imprisoned for crimes in which there is a “high level of replacement.”

Citing an example, James says that if a serial rapist is incarcerated, the judicial system has the power to prevent further sexual assaults by that offender, and it is likely that no one will take the offender’s place.

“However, if a drug dealer is incarcerated, it is possible that someone will step in to take that person’s place,” James writes. “Therefore, no further crimes may be averted by incarcerating the individual.”

The increase in prison population is also a result of a “get tough” approach on crime in the U.S., under which even nonviolent offenders are facing stiff prison sentences.

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Time for Change - Prison Path Visitor Information & Inmate Locator- Prison PathBetter Options for Nonviolent Inmates - PrisonPath Visitor Information & Inmate Locator- PrisonPathMark D. Fronckiewicz Recent comment authors
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Mark D. Fronckiewicz

The prison industry is big business. It is no longer about crime and punishment. Additional Comments– Elaine– You are, of course, absolutely right to be concerned about the appalling overcrowding in US prisons, and about the processes/practices by which people are sent there. The photo you supply shows just how disgraceful the conditions in some US prisons have become. I have thought long and hard about this issue, especially since the size of the population results not only from new, more punitive legislation and sentencing, but also from the close relationship between prisons and industry. So, I think there comes… Read more »


[…] prisons are caused by incarcerating too many nonviolent inmates.  Our February posting on overcrowded prisons cited the absurd statistics on our excessively high inmate population. We are number one in the […]


[…] that overcrowded prisons are caused by incarcerating too many nonviolent inmates.  A posting on overcrowded prisons cited the absurd statistics on our excessively high inmate population. We are number one in the […]